Book Review: Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World

Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America's Role in the World by Robert D. Kaplan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book sure comes away with a lot of quotable one liners.

I liked the concept that Kaplan was going for here, the idea of chronicling America's geography and influence upon its place in the world. The final execution though seems to be all over the place.

The first third of the book comes across as an almost "Ken Burns style" historical discussion on the history of the country. I found this early section the most interesting, with its invocation of the "Great American Frontier". Bernard DeVoto was mentioned several times (which makes me want to go read his books) and there is an almost romanticized portray of America's growth.

The tone shifts, almost suddenly, to a modern day narrative of Kaplan then driving across America from east to west to describe the importance of the rivers, natural resources and the trade impacts of the interstate highway system. The sudden shift was a bit jarring as was the change from a historical narrative to a more modern one.

The final leg of the book then shifts once again to discuss geopolitical conflicts and the U.S. military and U.S. Imperialism. At times Kaplan infers to the impacts of geography on other nations and I think he was trying to illustrate how their geography has influenced their growth compared to the United States'. He doesn't go into enough detail on other nations' geography to bring the message home though. China, India and Russia are only briefly mentioned, their rivers specifically, but there is no deeper discussion about their natural resources, political divides or varying climates to counter against what he states for the U.S.

The final section also comes across with a pro-imperialist message, describing that the world economy, culture, etc, are the way they are because of America's military might and geopolitics. I don't believe his insights are incorrect, but he doesn't take much time to explore any of the counter points on the imperialist agenda. The message again comes across as a bit altruistic.

Each of these three sections were fairly interesting on their own, and should probably be expanded to their own books. I just felt that they didn't quite come together with cohesion as a single unit very effectively.

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The Salt Creek Bramble

This past Christmas I received the "Road Biking Illinois" book and two weeks ago Megan and I got out to do our first route in the book. We did the Salt Creek Bramble which was a nice ~35 mile bike ride around the western suburbs. The weather could not have been nicer and the ride was pretty great, hitting up some nice trails through the forest preserve and hitting up some nice neighborhoods. I didn't realize when we firsts out from it that we would be going as far north as Oak Park.

The only major complaint in the book is that the street names changed often from town to town, even while staying "straight" on the road, so there was a lot of stopping and referring back to the book to try and get our bearings. We made a nice stop at the "Brown Cow" ice-cream shop in Forest Park to recharge our batteries a little bit. 

The western side of the ride had a nice detour through Fullersburg Woods, which I would like to go back and walk at some point while also hitting up Graue Mill. We tried to find it in the area, but we couldn't and the woods there has a nice crushed gravel path that I think would be great for an afternoon walk. Great ride for anyone in the western suburbs. Hit up my Strava link to get the route and do it yourself. 

Grumpy Grind #4 - Or the story of how I bonked

So, if you have been following me at all on social media for the past week, you would have known that I was attempting to do the Grumpy Grind this weekend. This was an 82 mile gravel grinder. A gravel grinder is a very midwest sort of bike ride that is focused on riding on gravel roads. 

So for the past month or so leading up to this ride I was preparing myself for some pretty terrible weather. Cold, perhaps raining conditions. What we got instead was a beautiful day. Perhaps a too beautiful one. People were initially joking about how this was the least grumpy of the Grumpy Grinds, but after about 20 miles in I think every found out that the sun and the heat combined with the nearly sand like road conditions made this a very grumpy grind. 

Road conditions, as I mentioned were brutal. The gravel roads were so dry that they were basically powdered sand with rocks in them. It was extremely difficult to find a path on some of the roads. The most brutal section of the route was on Hershey Road, around the 25 mile mark. This area, as I found out, was a killer for many people on the ride. Both my dad and I decided that we weren't going to be able to finish by here and instead we were going to bail out at the midway point. I wanted to make an effort to try and finish the full first half of the ride and tried to get the last ten miles or so. That ended up being a mistake that was more than I could handle. As soon as I started around that 35th mile I was already beginning to cramp up in my legs. What I didn't know is that what lay in front of me were some of the hardest vertical changes that were to be shown on the ride thus far. As you look at the back half of my graph above, you can see that I hit several elevation changes of over two hundred feet. Well that finally killed me. After stalling out on several hills my legs decided to call it quits. I seized up and literally couldn't walk. I had to then call in Megan to act as my SAG to bail me out. 

Overall though, this was a great ride. It was brutal, but you don't know if you can't do it until you try. Great people and a great setup overall though.